From fussy to foodie: How to raise adventurous eaters

Introducing different foods to children can be a challenge.
Introducing different foods to children can be a challenge. Photo: Marina Oliphant

Dishes that look weird or smell strange can cause upset and stress come mealtime. So how do you get your kids to decide salmon is succulent not scary, or that broccoli is delicious instead of disgusting? 

"We tell our kids we accept that they won't like everything, but to at least give it a go," says Melbourne chef Scott Pickett. "I am not sure whether kids are born fussy eaters or it becomes a habit as they get older, but I firmly believe that with direction, patience and exposure, kids will eat a large variety of different foods. Maybe not all the time, but at least [they] will give it a go."

Persevere and keep offering foods to fussy eaters.
Persevere and keep offering foods to fussy eaters. Photo: Shuttershock

"My son Max ate in restaurants from a very young age," says Bacash chef Fiona Bacash. "He is now 17 and eats anything. He recently had andouillette, a sausage of pig's colon, pork and intestine. It's a dish that I didn't even want to try."

So why do some kids dig-in with relish, and others staunchly reject anything and everything? 

"The main [reason] is their desire to be independent and make their own food choices," says nutritionist Nikki Heyder. "Others suffer from neophobia, which is a fear of the unfamiliar and a common phobia often associated with food. Given their desire for autonomy and/or fear of the new, bribery strategies are rarely successful."

Here are some other strategies to try at the table.

Salt and sugar 

Heyder says humans are hard-wired to like sugar and salt, so exposing young children to foods containing them should be avoided.

"Sugar and salt are super-addictive," says Heyder. "When kids are developing their palates, they are the worst things we can offer them. Try leading by example and show them how delicious savoury flavours are while consciously limiting sugar- and salt-laden options.

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"Pile their plates with proteins and unseasoned vegetables and offer them crudites and hummus, or apple and peanut butter, as a snack. It's a much [healthier] way to expand their palate ."

However, Bacash suggests creatively harnessing kids' penchant for salt and sugar can be effective. "Children prefer sweet and salt, so when preparing cabbage, for example, try adding a lime, palm sugar, fish sauce, ginger, sesame oil and coriander dressing."

One meal for all

Joanna Cooper, author of Our Tamarama Kitchen, says cooking just one family meal has contributed to her three kids becoming adventurous eaters.  

"They love pâté, blue cheese, oysters, truffles and olives," she says. "As babies they ate everything we did, but in mushed form.

"I take a firm stance on this and can't understand why parents prepare different meals for their children. If mine don't like what I've made, they can go hungry – it never happens, but that's the rule. I feel you set yourself up for a fussy eater if you capitulate to your child."

Starting them young

Heyder says being involved with cooking as a child made her the foodie she is today. "I was always in the kitchen and involved in the preparation," she says. "It taught me to understand what was on my plate and why I should eat it. I was very adventurous and remember making my own curry pastes in a mini mortar and pestle next to my grandmother. Being involved [in the kitchen] makes kids curious."

While it can be challenging to change kids' natural proclivities towards eating, early behaviours can encourage a more diverse food acceptance. 

"The prime time to get them eating the right foods is when introducing your baby to solid food," says Heyder. "Once you have identified foods they like, try combining them with new flavours, and keep offering it every couple of days. Often children need to try a taste many times before they finally accept it."

Autonomy and exposure

Heyder says standing firm is vital. 

"Keep offering, even when it's been rejected 100 times." she says. "Because your child wants to be independent, offer a selection of healthy foods and let him or her choose."

Using words that identify tastes like sweet, spicy, sharp or rich reminds kids they have eaten something similar before and may enjoy this similar taste, too. 

"Using positive words does help encourage experimentation," says Heyder. "If a food is rejected, try saying 'that's cool, we'll try it again another time'." says Heyder. "Or if they screw up their nose maybe say, 'see how your big brother likes it? Maybe you will when you're his age'."